Martha Ainsworth rides a bus into Port Authority from New Jersey at least three times a week, twice for work and once on Sunday to attend Mass at St. John’s in the Village. Like any good New Yorker, Martha tries to make use of her commute. As soon as she’s settled in her seat, she pulls out a rosary and begins to pray. By the time she has boarded the bus on a normal day, she’s already spent more than an hour in formal prayer and at a kind of devout study known as lectio divina. By the time she goes to bed, she’ll have spent three more hours in prayer. Some days, she is so transported that an hour steals by without her realizing it.
Last month, Martha wrote to Bishop Mark Sisk, head of the Episcopal Church’s New York diocese, formally requesting to become a solitary, a designation in the church’s canon laws that recognizes a life of solitude and silent prayer. If the bishop accepts her petition, Martha will embark on a years-long process to discern her fitness for religious life. She’ll undergo a background check and assemble a board of advisers to oversee her practice. She’ll take annually renewed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, like any other monastic novice, in the hope of making them permanent.
But unlike a cloistered monk, who shares chores and helps generate a common income by making cheese or fruitcakes, Martha will arrange her prayer life around a schedule that looks from the outside like any other citizen’s. Week after week, she will encounter the din of the city. She will keep her apartment, shop for groceries, answer her phone, and earn a paycheck. She’ll have no abbot or abbess, and no sisters, owing her obedience only to the bishop. Martha will become, in effect, a contemplative order of one.
An urban hermit is not the contradiction it sounds. Even the holy men and women of the fourth century who struck out into the desert in search of God remained connected to the city life of the time. “These were public people,” says Roberta Bondi, a retired Emory University professor who has written on the desert fathers. “They were considered countercultural.” One of the best known early hermits, St. Anthony, became an influential voice in the affairs of Alexandria, accepting visits from townspeople coming to bring food, gawk, and ask advice. Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century English anchoress, lived in a cell attached to the cathedral of East Anglia’s plague-ridden market city. “A hermitage is often thought to be isolated from the outside world,” says an official at the New York Episcopal Diocese. “But someone who is really grasping this life is a hermit of the heart. That can happen anyplace.”
That doesn’t make conducting a life of prayer in the middle of a metropolis like New York easy. Some of the challenges are the same ones any New Yorker feels. “I tried for a long time to use my bus ride for meditation,” Martha says. “It was just too hard. The person in the next seat might cough, and I’d start thinking about germs. Or something would catch my eye. The rustling of newspapers, the snoring of other passengers, someone’s cell phone going off, all seemed to conspire to keep me from prayer.” Then she bought a rosary at a church fund-raiser and found, as contemplatives have for centuries, that handling the beads helped her block out the distractions.
Martha’s real problem is that she is a relative newcomer to the life of prayer. Silence, the inward kind by which contemplatives seek the presence of God, is like a muscle that takes years to build. Brother Randall Horton, a former manager at a major Silicon Valley computer company who has been living as an Episcopal solitary for more than a decade, moved from rural Connecticut to Yonkers in 2001. Praying in the city is simply different, he says. “I can’t say that it’s harder or easier. I did have to get used to the sound of gunshots at night. I was used to hearing the deer at the salt lick.”
Most of us think of prayer as asking God for something: Let the surgery go okay, keep the kids safe, let Matsui get on for Posada. We’re praying for peace of mind; it’s a means to an end. But what if we prayed until we couldn’t think of anything else to ask for—and then prayed some more? Contemplatives attempt to reverse the direction of prayer’s flow, to listen instead of ask. If you approach prayer this way (and pray enough), Martha explains, it leaves the dimension of words altogether, and the distractions—even the unceasing stimuli of New York City—drop away. “If prayer is quietly having a conversation with the divine, then it’s impossible to pray on the subway,” says Brother Horton.